The words “baruch ata Adonai,” carried on whorls of organ and reverb, echoed through the hushed vastness of the Effenaar, Eindhoven’s handsome gray cube of a rock club, as a reggae show began with a Hebrew prayer. There is little reason for a tourist to swing through, but the Effenaar, a freestanding structure in a park near the city’s central railway station, is every bit as vital a portal into one’s surroundings as the Van Gogh museum an hour and a half north. The acoustics are eerily perfect, the backstage uncluttered and spacious, the lobbies so wide and logically organized that even at a sold-out show there are no crushes of people to squeeze through. Here, a few hundred concert-goers have gathered to see the Ivorian reggae legend Alpha Blondy cut across age, race, religion, and other categories. The artist’s mind is fixed elsewhere.
“I tell my fans we were born in this battlefield: The battle between good and bad. The battle between love and hate. The battle between God and the devil,” Blondy explained to me after the show, with an intensity that matched that of his subject matter. “And God is the winner. If you’re sitting here having this interview it’s the proof of the victory of the Almighty over the devil.”
Hopefully! I interjected. “I’m telling you, it’s certain,” he assured me. “Because if the devil was the winner the world would be chaos.”
Onstage, where he did not look the least bit hobbled or even particularly old at 66, he’d spent much of the show standing in a gleaming cream-colored three-piece suit downstage of a seven-piece band and three female backing singers, all of whom, save for the drummer, were dressed in black. Halfway through the 90-minute set, he swapped out a slightly baggy-looking black hat for a salmon-colored baseball cap. In the glare of the Effenaar’s miraculously clean greenroom it was finally possible to examine the hat, which still covered Blondy’s short, white curls: “I Climbed Masada,” it read.
In the 1992 song “Masada,” Blondy sings of climbing the mountain at sunrise, and realizing that nothing in existence is entirely random: “I’m gonna walk up to the top of the rock of sacrifice/Cause I know now, life ain’t no dice.”
Like “Jerusalem,” his Eindhoven set-opener, “Masada” has a couple of crucial lines of Hebrew in it: “Elohim yevarech ata Masada,” he sings. Midway through the set in Eindhoven, the words “Adonai Elohim, melech haolam, Adonai echad” rang out through the house, the idea of the midshow almost-Shema being “to take people to another level,” the artist explained. “God didn’t send us here just to smoke, get high, drink booze, shake our booty, and go home. No. You have to bring people to that dimension.” God, he reminded me, “is not a joke. It’s a reality.”
“Jerusalem,” a tribute to the city’s religious diversity and spiritual power, was written shortly after Blondy’s first visit to Israel in 1985. The song’s music video shows him walking through the Old City and singing in front of the Western Wall with a red and white keffiyah draped around his neck. “My search for God took me to Israel and I fell in love with Israel, with Jerusalem,” he told me. “There is no rational explanation, why do you love Israel? Because I love Israel.”
Politics doesn’t much interest him, he said, when I pressed him on the subject. “I want to preach love. Spiritual love,” he explained. “In Jerusalem, there is an energy. As Rasta said, who feels it, knows it. For me, my first time to go to Israel, I cried,” he continued. “People want me to justify myself they should ask God why did God say everything he said? That’s all. I just felt the energy and I followed my feeling.”
He’s been back to Israel frequently since that first visit. The Masada hat was a gift from an Israeli friend. “You know what Masada means in my dialect?” he asked me. “In Mandinka, Masa is the king, the Lord. Da is the mouth. The word of the Lord. Masada. The mouth of the Lord. You see what I mean?” he continued. “I said Masada, but all the Mandinka people, oh ‘Masada,’ they thought the mouth of the Lord. So you can be singing something, saying some words, for you the words have a meaning. But to the ear of the people listening it might have another meaning.”
When asked about how he’s succeeded in writing songs since the early 1980s (his latest album, Human Race, was released last year) he began explaining the divine origins of creativity: “Saying that I was sitting on the beach with the guitar and I had an inspiration and I wrote that song—yeah, that’s vanity. You know why? Because your brain is not yours. You were given a brain. That hard drive that the Lord gives you, all the information in that hard drive belongs to who? You are using it. You are lucky to use it. You see what I mean?”
With most other people that question is a deflection or a reflex, but with Blondy it seemed a prudent invitation to think on statements that always made sense but usually only in reference to some higher, other logic. “I tried to tell the nonbelievers that the fact that they don’t believe is a belief. If I say, I don’t believe in Armin, at least I know the name of Armin. You see what I mean? … Whether you believe or you don’t believe, you are part of this creation.”
Seydou Koné, the future Alpha Blondy, was born in the southern Ivory Coast in 1953, to a Muslim father and a Christian mother. He said that as a kid, his town received a magazine called Rock and Folk, which alerted him to the revolution underway in British and American music—“We belonged to that generation where music traveled a lot,” he said. Blondy discovered reggae in the 1970s while living in the United States, where he attended Hunter College in New York City. There, he heard Jimmy Cliff, Burning Spear, and Bob Marley, and while the music came from the Caribbean it had “African colors” that Blondy recognized in the vocals, rhythms, and basslines. “In Africa we are very concerned by the heavy bass,” he said. “And the message. I don’t want to play music without a positive message.”
“Jerusalem” appeared on an album of the same name in 1986, a record now considered a key moment in reggae becoming a truly global genre. On a run of highly regarded 1980s releases, Alpha Blondy sang in over a half-dozen languages, often using more than one per song.
One of the many fun discoveries of an Alpha show is finding out how well Arabic situates into the music’s deep grooves; meanwhile he credits his Israeli friends with teaching him the Hebrew that appears in his music. He wrote songs about looking for God, and others about conflict in West Africa and the brutality of the Ivorian police. He’d inject florid West African guitar licks into traditional dub beats, only to rip into harsher, almost industrial rhythms a track or two later.
Jerusalem, and the rest of the singer’s discography, argues that reggae can be created by anyone and contain anything and any theme. Icons of the genre were moved by his genius: Blondy recorded “Jerusalem” with Bob Marley’s Wailers as his backing band, and he released an album with Sly and Robbie in 2007.
Alpha Blondy never strayed from the idea that the ‘everything’ in reggae included the Jews, too.
Blondy never strayed from the idea that the “everything” in reggae included the Jews, too. He named a 1998 album after Yitzhak Rabin, a record whose title track has Blondy singing in Hebrew in the slain prime minister’s memory. As a spiritual searcher, Blondy couldn’t ignore Judaism, or its homeland: “If you are concerned with God, you cannot avoid Israel of course.” Last year, Blondy went to Mecca during the hajj, joining millions of other Muslim pilgrims to the birthplace of Islam. “When you see all those people with the same faith, you don’t talk about numbers anymore. You talk about energy,” he recalled. A few days later, Blondy was back in Jerusalem after a short stopover in Paris. “And look,” he added, “my going to Mecca made me love Israel even more.”
One of Alpha Blondy’s most famous songs, “Cocody Rock,” is a deceptively simple tune from 1984 describing a seemingly different kind of gathering, a reggae party in the titular neighborhood in Abidjan, the Ivory Coast’s largest city. The song is about the spreading of the universal language of reggae far beyond the place where it originated, although 35 years later it doubles as a memory of home.
Blondy’s career has been dedicated to packing as much into the music as possible, with his focus on Jewish themes showing how far reggae could be stretched and how much meaning and mystery it can contain. Still, for an artist whose sound and being sprawl so widely, a song about something as parochial as home has an inherent tension.
In Eindhoven, “Cocody Rock” took on an elegiac quality, as if it recalled something too far away to ever fully recover: In general Blondy’s singing voice is a softly rasping almost-tenor, Marley-esque in its ability to communicate some ineffable yearning or hidden pain. “I was born in Ivory Coast but my life experience made me feel like I’m from everywhere,” Blondy said, before recalling something that Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the first president of Ivory Coast, apparently told him. “He said when you do something that people love you don’t belong to yourself anymore. And sometimes I have that feeling, you know?”
In Eindhoven, Alpha Blondy always stood far downstage, usually less than an arm’s length away from his fans, with whom he’d shake hands midsong. The set never lagged, and the numbers transitioned seamlessly into one another, with few gaps in between. In yet another reminder that this definitely wasn’t the United States, fans sometimes would climb onstage, survey the audience at eye level with their hero, drape an adoring arm over his shoulder, and then retreat back into the crowd as soon as security glowered at them from the wings (in the United States, they’d do more than just glower). One stage visitor was a thin and slightly balding man in wire glasses and a collared shirt, maybe the squarest-looking individual in the whole crowd, moved into doing something spontaneous and irrational and content just to stand mutely next to Alpha and smile at the beautiful scene in front of him while the singer nodded toward security as if to say, give the man another second or two up here.
The next night, at the Paard nightclub in The Hague, a woman in a dazzling black robe hugged Alpha around the waist for an entire verse, long enough to make one wonder if she ever planned on leaving. As the tempo accelerated she started swaying and spinning, and she turned and bowed to the band when the song ended, as if the show had been hers all along.
“You cannot imagine the effect you create in his mind when this guy jumps onstage and comes to grab you—how can you explain that?” Blondy marveled in Eindhoven. After all, he spent much of the show singing in Ivorian languages that few people in attendance understood, assuming any of them did. Earlier, at almost the start of the conversation, Blondy asked, “How can you imagine the magic that music brings to the people?”
When I told him I was headed to Israel next, he offered: “Say hi to all my brother and sisters in Israel, tell them toda rabah, and tell them that you know by the grace of God I will take my wife there, too,” he said. “Our next baby will be called Abraham.”
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Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.